Last year Benjamin Bratt started chain-smoking, sprouted an unruly goatee and dressed in head-to-toe polyester. No, it had nothing to do with his well-publicized split from Julia Roberts
, 34, last May. As the title character in Piñero—a biopic based on the life of Puerto Rican poet-playwright, ex-con and drug addict Miguel Piñero—the star, who favors Armani, was required to dress down. "I looked completely different," says Bratt, 38. "It was so refreshing to walk around the streets of New York and have no one recognize me."
The role of Piñero, who died in 1988 at 41 of cirrhosis of the liver and had a penchant for prostitutes, couldn't be further from Bratt's previous personas: a squeaky-clean cop on Law & Order—and in real life Roberts's paparazzi-dodging Prince Charming. Not that the attention bothered him too much. "Anyone who is making a living from acting has no room to complain" about gossips, he says. Now dating his lesser-known Piñero costar Talisa Soto, 34, Bratt lives in San Francisco, where he enjoys a new level of privacy—and proximity to his mom, Eldy, 65. She raised him and his four siblings alone after their parents split when Bratt was 4. Long hair and scruffy suits don't fool Eldy. "She knows me better than anyone," he says. Alison Singh Gee